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Concussion. Photo by Melinda Sue Gordon/ Columbia Pictures.




Concussion (PG-13)
Film reviews by Amy Diaz

12/31/15
By Amy Diaz adiaz@hippopress.com



Will Smith plays Bennet Omalu, a forensic pathologist who finds himself at odds with the NFL, in Concussion, a movie based on the real-life story of the doctor who helped publicize the link between football and brain disease.

Bennet Omalu worked in the coroner's office in Pittsburgh in 2002. A Nigerian immigrant with oodles of degrees and a serious work ethic, Omalu was not particularly loved by all of his colleagues due to his slow, deliberate style of performing autopsies, but he had the support of the department's big boss, Dr. Cyril Wecht (Albert Brooks, doing his impression of Law & Order D.A. Adam Schiff). Thus, when former Pittsburgh football star Mike Webster (David Morse) winds up in the morgue, Omalu is given the job of doing the autopsy even though others in the office push to just let this former hero rest in peace. But Omalu wants to know why a man who was once beloved by a city died a homeless wreck of a man. Initial examination of the brain shows Omalu none of the signs of an illness that would cause the headaches, voices, depression and other problems that plagued Webster. So, at his own expense, he has the brain examined more closely and, when looking at the slides of brain slices as well as footage from Webster's career, Omalu comes to the conclusion that years of impacts to the head caused the brain damage that led to a degenerative disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. Essentially, he concludes that football killed Mike Webster. 
Though Omalu is able to get noted neurologists to agree with his findings and join him in publishing a paper about them, all are not in agreement. The NFL basically calls Omalu's findings nonsense, even though a former team doctor, Dr. Julian Bailes (Alec Baldwin), also agrees and publicly supports Omalu. Omalu finds his credibility questioned and his career and even his immigration status in jeopardy, even as other former football players are experiencing symptoms of CTE and dying in violent circumstances, often at their own hand. 
In the midst of this professional turmoil, Omalu meets Prema Mutiso (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), an immigrant from Kenya who was a nurse there. Essentially set up by their church, Prema and Bennet quickly form an attachment and get married, hoping to fulfill their American dream with a big suburban house in a good neighborhood in Pittsburgh. But as Omalu's findings get more attention, the couple start to feel themselves unwelcome in this football-loving city.
Concussion reminded me a little of Spotlight with its slow unraveling of a bigger issue brought on by investigation into one seemingly small instance of something. Where in Spotlight the team of journalists starts by looking at one or two criminal priests and ends up with a story that helps to shine light on worldwide wrongdoing, Concussion's investigation starts with one autopsy and ends up throwing into doubt an entire massively popular sport. As a character in the movie points out, in Spotlight it takes an editor who isn't from Boston and isn't Catholic to spur the closer look. In Concussion, there's Omalu, an immigrant both to America and to Pittsburgh who has no deep childhood connection to football. He can ask the questions because he is truly coming to the situation with a fresh perspective. 
These parts of the movie, the parts where Omalu is digging, even the parts where we see the NFL pushing back against his findings, are the best parts of Concussion. Unfortunately, the movie has a lot more to it than these parts. The movie isn't as taut as Spotlight. At just over two hours, Concussion could easily stand to part with a good 30 minutes of run time and we'd lose nothing. Several "the NFL will bury you" conversations feel like repetition. The scenes where some insider, usually Bailes, explains to Omalu what he's up against tend to work only because Alec Baldwin remains a highly watchable guy. 
The movie also gives us a fair amount of Omalu's inner turmoil, and this is where it really starts to feel fluffed up. Early on, there's some nice description of how Omalu worked to fit in and succeed in America and what he wants out of life here. But the movie bangs on about this in a way that starts to feel like filler for times when nothing is happening on the football side of things. Where Spotlight was able to spread its down moments out between its team members, in Concussion all hangs on Smith. He does a good job of painting a picture and filling in the dimension of Omalu, but he could have easily done it in fewer scenes and left the overall performance with a greater sense of precision. 
That said, the movie does have several supporting performances that, while not great, are quite solid.  Mbatha-Raw probably does more with the role than was on the page and makes "great man's wife" a fuller character than it could have been (see Amy Ryan in Bridge of Spies for how slight such a character can be). Brooks is fun as the grouchy old guy who supports Omalu despite the personal cost, and Baldwin's former team doctor helps give the characters some gray area — not everybody is either Team Football or Team Concussion
Concussion doesn't wow, it doesn't have the bigness that you expect from a serious end-of-year movie, but it is a strong, solid entry in the "people doing their job well" category that I've run into a few times this year. B
Rated PG-13 for thematic material including some disturbing images and language. Written and directed by Peter Landsman (from a GQ article called "Game Brain" by Jeanne Marie Laskas), Concussion is two hours and two minutes long and distributed by Columbia Pictures. 





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